Lounging at an outdoor cafe just outside downtown San Francisco, his athletic frame filling out a slim-fit button-up, a talkative tech worker named Daniel detailed the many ways he’s optimizing his existence.
Only the previous week, he says, he returned from a 10-day trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Before that, he boasts, he journeyed to a yoga retreat and juice cleanse in Bali, the perfect setting to unload the stress he absorbs working at a well-known tech company in Silicon Valley. After ending a five-year marriage and shedding 10 pounds of subcutaneous fat several years back – his sun-kissed body now carb- and toxin-free – Daniel has reemerged a new, seemingly younger man.
The changes have enhanced his dating life, but more importantly, he says, they’ve bolstered his youthful professional image, giving colleagues the impression that he’s high-energy, hard-working and on-trend. There’s only one problem. Most of Daniel’s co-workers think he’s in his late 30s, but he’s actually 48 years old. As far as Silicon Valley is concerned, his birth date is the tech world’s equivalent of prehistory, years before Jobs and Wozniak set up what would become Apple in Jobs’s parents’ garage.
So like a growing number of male tech workers, Daniel is considering a new strategy to conceal his “advanced” age for years to come: plastic surgery, including Botox, a facelift to counteract under-eye bags and the kind of midsection sculpting that could offer the impression that washboard abs ripple beneath his tailored shirts.
Daniel, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be published for fear of being outed as old, has discussed those procedures with Larry Fan, a San Francisco-based plastic surgeon. Fan estimates that about 25% of his patients now are men like Daniel, the vast majority of whom work in tech. Increasingly, he says, they are struggling under the weight of beauty standards that have long tormented women.
“In Silicon Valley, it’s commonly believed that if you’re over the age of 35, you’re seen as over the hill,” said Fan, who touts himself as an expert in penile enhancement and Botox injections. “People here value the young for their passion and their ability to look at things in new ways.”
“In meetings, middle-aged guys will notice that everyone around them looks fresh-faced and youthful, and they’ll tell me they feel like they stick out, and not in a good way,” he added.
For men like Daniel, there is little doubt that the upgrades are, at least in part, motivated by vanity. But as Fan notes, male tech workers appear to be turning to plastic surgery because of more complicated pressures – both personal and professional – that have been gathering momentum in Silicon Valley’s male-dominated ecosphere for years.
Midcareer tech workers like Daniel have witnessed their industry transform from providing largely behind-the scenes services to some of the most influential products on Earth. Tens of billions of dollars have flowed into the region as a result, skyrocketing incomes and property values and creating a new class of super-rich tech executives, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists.
Under pressure to keep up financially – and surrounded by an influx of creative young workers with new skills and talents – middle-aged tech workers can find themselves immersed in a future-obsessed culture that celebrates youthful brainpower with the same vigor that Los Angeles or Miami celebrates youthful bodies.
That’s why Daniel fears that what remains of his pleasing visage – and with it his upward career trajectory and robust social life – could disappear behind a mask of middle-age wrinkles. His ultimate fear: being banished to the cultureless provinces, unemployed and alone, with the rest of the saggy-skinned suburbanites.
“Back in the early 2000s and late ’90s people didn’t worry too much about how you looked,” said Daniel. “But there’s a whole new generation of workers here, and they have created different expectations and that starts with appearance. You see more people in shape and looking fashionable now.”
“And if people in the workplace know you’re older than everyone else it can hurt you in terms of what roles you get,” he added.
It’s a common sentiment among older tech workers, a feeling reflected in multiple lawsuits and investigations alleging some of the valley’s biggest companies are steeped in age bias.
Last year, Google paid out $11 million to more than 230 job applicants over the age of 40 who accused the company of engaging in a “systematic pattern” of age discrimination during its hiring process, according to court documents.
The older workers alleged that the company used phrases like “Googleyness” and “cultural fit” as euphemism for youth.
In 2018, ProPublica reported that over five years the cloud computing giant IBM – which reported more than $79 billion in revenue in 2018 – pushed out around 20,000 U.S. employees who were at least 40 years old in an effort to build a younger workforce.
At the same time, cosmetic procedures for men have tripled over about two decades, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Though the vast majority of patients using injectables like Botox and hyaluronic acid are women, the number of men undergoing the nonsurgical procedure more than doubled from 2010 to 2016.
Long gone is the era in which the tech wiz was synonymous with bulging bellies, thick glasses and pleated khakis, a time embodied by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer’s cringeworthy dancing during the Windows 95 launch.
Today’s techie is all about striving for perfection, whether that’s redefining retail, altering traditional transportation networks, spearheading a crypto-banking revolution or flouting Father Time as long as possible.
That’s why, in certain parts of Silicon Valley these days, appearing old by its very nature carries more than a residue of failure.
“You’re surrounded by a lot of people who are just out of college and very ambitious, and you just feel pressure to fit in,” a 40-something veteran of multiple Silicon Valley start-ups who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the stigma attached to his age. “You don’t want people to assume that because you’re not in your twenties you won’t be able to work long hours and live the lifestyle necessary to be successful.”
His cosmetic procedure of choice: a collagen-stimulating skin rejuvenation technique called Radio Frequency microneedling that can cost about $1,500 per session.
Nick, another 40-year-old tech worker, says he spends about $500 on Botox every three to four months. He considers his regimen an “investment.”
“There’s a lot of studies that show being better-looking leads to people making more money,” he said. “From my perspective, a $2,000-a-year investment to make more money long-term is definitely worth it.”
“Right now, I can definitely pass for 30, no problem,” he added.
Though quick to point out they’re not miracle workers, plastic surgeons say they can often shave five or 10 years off someone’s face. Tech workers are opting for treatments like Botox, injectable fillers, laser and skin-tightening treatments, all of which are wildly popular, plastic surgeons say. When it comes to cosmetic surgery, eye lifts and neck lifts are du jour.
Not to be forgotten are treatments like cool sculpting, a technique that freezes fat cells to death, giving someone the appearance of a slimmer, fitter physique. Many procedures require little recovery, allowing workers to return to the office within a day or two and often less.
To enhance the body, Fan first must probe the mind. His minimalist downtown office lacks a chaise longue, but Fan’s consultations give off more than a whiff of psychotherapeutic energy. The soft-spoken 47-year-old surgeon’s calming presence and attentive listening style seem perfectly calibrated to elicit deep-seated insecurities from vulnerable patients.
“Everyone is on social media and looking at pictures of themselves and feeling more self-conscious about their appearance,” Fan said. “Now these guys are coming in with apps like Face Morph that allow them to take a photo of their face and adjust the shape of their nose and cheekbones. They’ll show me the image and say, “I want to look like this.’ ”
Although many of her patients are in their 30s and 40s, Lavanya Krishnan, a San Francisco-based dermatologist, said she’s witnessed a similar trend, but with a slight twist.
“Men are definitely coming to us at much younger ages, so I sometimes see men in their twenties asking for injectables and laser work,” she said, noting that she’s often forced to turn them away because they’re “too young.”
“A lot of these guys come in with pictures of social media influencers they want to resemble.”
Krishnan and Fan say their patients work for major companies and popular start-ups and Fan, in particular, claims his clients include some of the most high-profile names in the valley. In Los Angeles, men might ask a plastic surgeon to re-create Brad Pitt’s jaw line, Ben Affleck’s nose or Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes.
But in Silicon Valley, most patients are inspired less by classic looks and more by the act of striving for personal optimization. That means aspiring to re-create the seemingly impossible work-life balance embodied by titans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – tenacious workers who are changing the world and looking good while doing it, whether that’s maintaining fresh-faced vigor (Musk) or looking buff in a fitted shirt in their mid-50s (Bezos). (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“People out here want to have it all,” Fan said. “They want to feel like they’re working hard and accomplishing great things and living a high-quality life that includes eating good food, being fit, making money and traveling.”
He added: “If you can change the world, why can’t you change your appearance?”
For many women, unrealistic beauty expectations begin in early childhood and continue unabated for decades. Traditionally, men have been immune from the brunt of those expectations, but in the Bay Area that may be changing.
Some tech workers attribute those changes to the profusion of gentrifying wealth that has transformed this city’s skyline, and character, over the last decade. Critics say the city is no longer a bohemian refuge, but a condo-filled, millennial theme park – home to more billionaires per capita than anywhere on Earth.
Suddenly, in this hypercompetitive environment, men may be finding that they have lost a privilege they’ve always taken for granted, according to Elizabeth McGrath, a Bay Area sex therapist who has coached men in “financially centric careers” on how to appear more charming.
“If women want to achieve things, it’s predetermined that they need to agree to particular standards of successful femininity in the workplace,” McGrath said. “Men have traditionally been able to opt out and say, ‘Those rules don’t apply to me.'”
McGrath added that while she doesn’t take pleasure in people’s suffering, there’s something “ironic” about men being forced to “play the game women have always had play to get what they want.”
Celeste Hirschman – a sex therapist and relationship coach whose work with cerebral tech workers includes a form of playful grappling designed to reconnect men with the sensation of physical touch – cautioned that the pressure men are under to succeed in Silicon Valley is uniquely strenuous.
It’s not uncommon for her clients to work 16 hours a day, she said, and to have an isolating, stress-filled existence that makes many ill-equipped to cultivate relationships outside work. She’s not surprised, she said, that those same men would seek to bolster their self-image by using their sizable paychecks to alter their appearance.
“The people they’re comparing themselves to are billionaires, and so they often feel like absolute failures, which does not bode well for their self-confidence,” Hirschman said. “If you’re always comparing yourself to Steve Jobs and seeking the approval of your peers, you’re never going to feel adequate.”
“The pressure is in the water at this point,” she added. “It’s so intense.”
The pressure can feel inescapable, even when tech workers leave the valley.
During his recent Italian getaway, Daniel slipped off his shirt for a swim and couldn’t help but notice that his pectoral muscles had lost a tinge of their youthful definition. It was a reminder, he said, that he can’t remain an undercover millennial for much longer – not without help.
“My biggest fear is what happens in the next decade?” he said. “Am I going to start looking like my father? Is it going to affect my job? I think plastic surgery might be a resource for me.”